business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Things don’t always work the way they are supposed to. Frankly, when it comes to customer service or any kind of business success, a company’s ability to deal with problems is in many ways far more important than coasting along when things are going well.

With this in mind, let me explain about a recent odyssey with American Airlines, possibly the only company that makes me pine for United.

Late last week I was scheduled to fly from Dallas to my home airport in Washington, DC. Things, to put it mildly, didn’t go as planned.

My flight was scheduled to depart DFW at 10:30 am. Got to the airport early. (I was with the Content Guy, with whom I’d been giving a speech.) Unsurprisingly, we had a short delay to kick things off, but were boarded onto our jet about 30 minutes late. No big problem there. Except once we were all herded onto the plane and into our seats, the pilot announced there was a problem with one of the tires and, due to safety concerns, we needed to off-load. Dutifully we did that, with the main conversation being whether AAA would be on scene to replace the tire.

No one expected this to be a big deal. After all, DFW is a major American hub and no one doubted that the airline would simply roll out a new tire and get us on our way. Then again…

Apparently, getting that tire required a minor miracle. We sat staring out the window at what seemed to be the slowest tire change imaginable. Where is a NASCAR pit crew when you need it?

Two hours later - and still no action on the tire - we were told to move 11 gates away to another available plane. We did. Once at the new gate, we boarded another plane, got bags stowed and took our seats. All seemed good until the pilot came on to tell us there was a concern about debris in the engine and once again we needed to off-load. Again, this seemed like a prudent safety issue; nobody really wants to fly on a plane that might have a bad engine.

So back into DFW, Terminal C, and back to our original gate only to find out (no surprise) that our flight crew had been on duty too long and needed to be replaced. The good news was the plane’s tire was clearly new; we could tell by the white sticker that seems to be on every new tire. So we waited another hour for a new crew, we greeted them with a standing ovation and soon enough (nearly eight hours after our scheduled departure time) we were boarded back onto our original plane.

Sure enough, the pilot came on again - incredibly, American forgot to cater our plane and apparently we couldn’t depart without our complement of soft drinks and pretzels!. (Really? Is this an FAA regulation?) So we waited another hour… eventually, we took off.

Needless to say, more than our patience was exhausted.

While this is a highly specific example, there are universal lessons to be learned. As many passengers noticed, not once did anyone actually say, “We are sorry.” Sure, problems occur. Sometimes they cannot all be fixed. But a human touch can actually help.

When the flight finally landed in DC - nine hours late - the inexplicably perky flight attendant told me to “have a pleasant evening” as I got off the airplane. I was too tired to point out it was 11:30 pm which meant that the evening ended long ago and the odds of anything being pleasant were infinitesimal.

In many ways, her lame, thoughtless comment was the coup de grace on a terrible day of travel. And that I think provides the best lesson. Lord knows the farewell flight attendants give us upon landing is so ridiculous that “Saturday Night Live” mocked it with a wonderful skit (featuring Helen Hunt and Total Bastard Airlines) more than 20 years ago.

Our people have to be trained to understand the situation and avoid robotic responses. All that flight attendant had to do was provide one small apology and fake a little sincerity. She wasn’t going to fix all the day’s problems, but she didn’t have to make it worse. That’s a lesson for us all. Bad things happen and many are beyond our control. What we can control is how we react and certainly how we avoid making things worse.

Problems are random. Responses are not.

One final comment: By way of apology American contacted me a day later to offer me a few thousand frequent flier miles as a consolation. Nice effort, but I don’t think I’ll be flying American for a while after this.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
KC's View:
I must admit that I gave Michael a hard time about all his whining. This happens to everybody … I was with him in Dallas, and it could’ve as easily happened to me as to him. (As it happens, before he took off I managed to fly home on United, go from Newark International to my home in Connecticut, get a haircut, have dinner, and sit in my office and enjoy a Tito’s-and-soda-with-lime. I was sympathetic to his situation. Really.)

That said, I agree with Michael. Totally. Problems are random. But responses are not … if you don’t get it right, it is your fault. Nobody else’s, and certainly not attributable to fate.